Yes, Akshay Bhatia admits, he and buddy/caddie Jonas Hillyard do in fact chat about things like TikTok and Instagram on the golf course. Even when the stakes are high.
But Bhatia, who eschewed the college golf world for a chance to play PGA Tour events last fall, isn’t looking to be known as a rabble-rouser.
Bhatia is 18, and Hillyard — who played golf in high school and Bhatia “thought it was a great idea for him just to come travel with me and just have a friend to travel with” — is just 21, and the two are living a life many of us can only dream of, carting their way from premier golf course to premier golf course.
They’re still, for a lack of a better term, just kids. And chit-chatting about things like social media might not make sense to others, but it certainly does to these two.
“We kind of keep it to ourselves because some of it might not be appropriate to some of these older guys or they won’t understand,” Bhatia said on Tuesday, in advance of the Wyndham Championship. “I try and heckle with some of the guys and I like talking trash to guys I know and I’m familiar with and I know that can understand my humor.”
Bhatia had a dominant run through junior golf, defending his title at the Junior PGA Championship. He also won the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley and the AJGA’s Polo Golf Junior Classic.
He then decided to turn pro at the tender age of 17, meaning a mature lifestyle — grinding out a paycheck, living week-to-week, skipping the standard team-building of college golf for a more isolated existence.
And the results on the pro side have not yet been congruent with those from his stellar junior golf career. Bhatia has missed the cut in all five of the PGA Tour events in which he’s played, with just one sub-70 round in the bunch.
Last week, however, he feels there was a breakthrough of sorts as he took home the $15,000 winner’s check by capturing an event on the SwingThought Tour at Hilton Head Island. Bhatia fired rounds of 63 and 67 to take the title.
He’s now at the Wyndham, which is just over an hour from his home, thanks to tournament director Mark Brazil, who gave him a sponsor’s exemption last fall. And he feels prepared to make a splash.
“I’ve learned a lot since this quarantine kind of thing started. Like, honestly, when I got out first on Tour playing these tournaments, I definitely had self-belief when I was uncomfortable, that’s what’s going to happen at 17 years old playing against guys who have been out here for a while,” Bhatia said. “But, you know, I’ve shot many lower scores in the last few months and that’s huge for me because knowing that I’m able to do it, knowing that I can play against guys who have played on the mini-tours or Korn Ferry or whatever just shows that I’m good enough to do it. I’m just going to go out there and just play golf, that’s all I have to do.
“That’s literally what it is, it’s just going out and playing a golf course. There’s nothing — there’s no secret to it.”
While others have blown up when attempting to live the Tour life at such a young age, or even regretted not spending time in college, Bhatia still thinks he made the right call. He was homeschooled and never enjoyed spending time in class, so college didn’t seem the right fit.
“Honestly, I’ve always had the mindset, I guess, of playing professional golf since I was a little kid, and kind of once we moved to Raleigh, I had more
opportunities to play against good players, older kids. I guess it just didn’t ever cross my mind that I wanted to do — you know, go to school,” he said. “All my mind was set on was just playing golf and playing on the PGA Tour and playing pro golf. I’ve met so many great people along the way, I’ve learned so much already. It’s crazy to think that like this month I would actually be going to college for my first year.
“Just thinking about that perspective and where my life would be if I was going to college, it’s just weird to think about. I don’t even know what would happen. I’ve just kind of always had that mentality of just learning the hard way and it’s definitely been some success and hopefully onward and upward, for sure.”
And as for hopping from event to event, just how has Bhatia been handling that?
In style. He recently leased a new car, one that he’d love to start making payments on with PGA Tour earnings.
“I spoiled myself, I got a Mercedes,” he said. “Probably not the smartest thing to do, but I enjoy it, so I’m not going to complain.”